Indian elections: The main players
- 7 April 2014
- From the section India
As India holds parliamentary elections, the BBC profiles the leading candidates and main players.
Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seen as India's most divisive politician - loved and loathed in equal measure.
He has been chief minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001 and is seen as a dynamic and efficient leader who has made his state an economic powerhouse. But he is also accused of doing little to stop the 2002 religious riots when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed - allegations he has consistently denied.
In the run up to the polls, Mr Modi's face is plastered on hoardings almost all over the country. At his election rallies, hundreds turn up wearing his face masks and more than 1,000 tea stalls across India are offering the refreshing brew in paper cups emblazoned with Mr Modi's picture on them.
Opinion polls have put the BJP and Mr Modi far ahead of their main rival, the ruling Congress party.
Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent of India's powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is facing his biggest challenge in 2014. Appointed second-in-command of the Congress party last year, he is charged with leading it into the elections and managing its campaign.
For the past several weeks, he has been criss-crossing the length and breadth of India, addressing rallies and holding meetings with party workers and supporters.
But his task is immense - Congress is bearing the brunt of voter unhappiness over a slowing economy, high inflation and a string of damaging corruption scandals. Opinion polls predict a debacle whereby the party could end up with fewer than 100 seats (it currently has 206).
Rahul Gandhi has long been seen as a prime-minister-in-waiting but the Congress has refrained from naming him as its candidate. Analysts say the move is aimed at protecting one of the party's main assets at a time when it seems set to lose.
Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president and head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is arguably the most powerful woman in India. Though her son Rahul Gandhi is leading the party's election campaign, her influence over the party has never been in doubt.
The widow of former PM Rajiv Gandhi would have become India's first Roman Catholic PM had she not surprised everyone by turning the post down after her election success in 2004. The 67-year-old Mrs Gandhi holds no official post, but many consider her the de facto head of the government.
She is widely considered to be the main backer of the party's welfare schemes including a landmark food-for-work scheme.
The elections pose one of the toughest challenges for her as her party faces a resurgent BJP, led by Mr Modi. In recent months, she has conceded that her party is facing "trying and challenging circumstances".
Leading anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal has dominated headlines in the run-up to the polls by announcing his decision to take on Mr Modi in Varanasi - the ancient, most sacred city for Hindus in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Mr Kejriwal made a spectacular political debut in December when his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Common Man's Party won 28 seats in Delhi's state assembly, propelling him to the post of chief minister in the capital. But he quit after 49 days amid a row over an anti-corruption bill.
A former bureaucrat, he first came into the limelight in 2011 when he was seen by the side of veteran campaigner Anna Hazare during his anti-corruption drive. But the two split a year later over Mr Kejriwal's decision to form a political party and contest elections.
His aim now is to replicate on the national stage what his party did in Delhi. The AAP has already nominated 407 candidates for the general election and said it would contest all the 543 seats.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has ruled himself out of the race after the 2014 poll, is regarded by many as a man of great personal integrity, but whose term in office has been marred by a string of corruption scandals, which have haunted his administration.
After almost a decade in office, Mr Singh himself is still viewed as perhaps the cleanest politician in India, but critics say that is not enough to lead the country.
In ruling himself out for PM after elections, Mr Singh singled out his Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi as having "outstanding credentials", while berating Mr Modi as a "disastrous" candidate.
Widely regarded as the architect of India's economic reforms programme, Mr Singh, 81, is the first Sikh to hold the country's top post.
Ms Mayawati, four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, lost ground to her rival Samajwadi Party in the state elections in 2012. But her Bahujan Samaj Party is likely to play a crucial role in the formation of a new government if the national parties fail to get a clear majority in the general elections. The BSP won 20 out of 80 seats in the state, which is India's most populous, in the 2009 parliamentary elections.
A charismatic politician, she is an icon to millions of India's Dalits (formerly "untouchables"). She enjoys tremendous popularity among the lower castes and has never hidden her ambition to be the country's prime minister.
Ms Mayawati is known for building statues of herself and other Dalit icons. In the last few years, huge concrete parks have been built in the Uttar Pradesh capital, Lucknow, and Noida, a Delhi suburb, with scores of massive stone statues of Ms Mayawati dotting the landscape.
The chief minister of West Bengal state, Mamata Banerjee, is leading her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party into the polls. In 2009, an alliance of the TMC and the ruling Congress party won 26 of the 42 parliament seats in the state. But she pulled out from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) last year over the government's move to hike gas prices.
If her party can repeat its 2009 performance, national parties may find themselves knocking on her door again.
Born in 1955, Ms Banerjee is credited with ending the 34-year rule of the Communist Party in West Bengal state.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is a former ally of the BJP, but his Janata Dal (United) party quit the alliance last year after the BJP nominated Mr Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, fearing that it would lose the support of Muslims in the state. Mr Kumar is known to be a good administrator - analysts say Bihar, one of India's poorest and most corrupt states, has turned the corner under his leadership.
The party won the maximum number of 20 seats in the last general elections in the state which sends 40 MPs and a good performance in the polls would bring him back into the limelight. Political observers say Mr Kumar aspires to become the next prime minister, but he has never admitted to this ambition.
Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu and head of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, is a former actress of Tamil cinema and enjoys huge support in the state.
She first became the chief minister in 1991 and has been a strong presence in both national and state politics ever since. Her party is expected to perform well in the elections and both the BJP and the Congress will try to secure her support after the results.
Lal Krishna Advani
Lal Krishna Advani, a founder member of the BJP, is credited with scripting the rise of the party as a major political force. But in recent years, the veteran leader has been upstaged by the younger guard of the party, led by Narendra Modi.
Last year, Mr Advani decided to quit from all party posts after Mr Modi was nominated as the BJP's PM candidate, but he later withdrew his resignation on party members' appeal.
Analysts say Mr Advani may still bounce back into favour if the BJP does not get the majority in the elections. They say many regional parties are reluctant to support Mr Modi - known to be a divisive leader - but may agree to Mr Advani's leadership.